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From ‘About a Boy’ to ‘Brooklyn Nine-Nine’: inside the push to reuse film and TV sets

A feature film can generate 574,000 pounds of waste. Some studios and producers are trying to change that.

From ‘About a Boy’ to ‘Brooklyn Nine-Nine’: inside the push to reuse film and TV sets
[Photos: Tyler Golden/Peacock, FOX Image Collection/Getty Images, Jordin Althaus/Peacock/NBCU Photo BankGetty Images]

This year, Becky Casey mourned the retirement of one of NBCUniversal’s most versatile and under-celebrated stars: a set of faux rock walls originally constructed for beach scenes in the late-1990s sitcom Malibu, CA. Made of foam and wood, the cumbersome walls earned the nickname “grip-killers” among production staff. Still, they traveled from show to show for more than 20 years, morphing into moonscapes, Nickelodeon backdrops, and a mock-up of Central Park.

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“Everybody wanted them,” said Casey, NBCUniversal’s vice president of production operations. “We had to finally retire them. It was really sad. We were all heartbroken because they were a workhorse.”

Not all set pieces get a second life. Materials are often destined for the dumpster as soon as shooting wraps. Renting stage space is one of the most expensive components of production, making producers anxious to clear it out quickly. Discarding sets and props is often the fastest method, since recycling common set materials—such as polyurethane, polystyrene, fiberglass, samba wood, and paint—can be complicated and costly.

[Photo: courtesy Recycled Movie Sets]
It’s difficult to quantify exactly how much material the motion picture industry sends to landfills. The industry doesn’t aggregate statistics on waste, and many studios are reluctant to discuss their post-shoot protocols, even when they have sustainability programs.

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Earth Angel, a sustainability consulting agency that specializes in supporting productions’ material reuse, said a studio-level feature film or television series can generate 130,000 to 574,000 pounds of waste. Kris Barberg, executive director of EcoSet, an environmental production resource based in Los Angeles, said a single three-day commercial shoot can generate between 1,000 and 10,000 pounds of trash.

“Especially now with the content explosion—how many films and shows are produced a year—the waste is exponential,” said producer Mari-Jo Winkler.

A growing number of studios, companies, and producers, however, are working to break the industry’s long-standing reliance on single-use design. Their solutions include storing sets for future shoots, renting them to low-budget film companies, repurposing pieces, and donating or recycling materials.

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[Photo: NBCUniversal]

Producers Lead Push for Sustainability

Winkler, whose film credits include Away We Go and Stillwater, said she began taking waste more seriously after listening to a talk in the early 2000s by environmental advocate Dick Roy, whose family whittled down its garbage output to one bag a year, most of it dental floss. The night after Roy’s lecture, Winkler couldn’t sleep, her thoughts consumed by the amount of trash generated on movie sets.

“That just lit something in me,” she said. “Traditionally, everything would go into dumpsters. It sparked me to go, ‘Okay, let’s look at every department on a film, and let me think about what we could do in each department to limit our waste.'”

She estimates that, since 2008, her productions have diverted about 75% of their waste from landfills, including set construction materials and leftover food and packaging from crew meals.

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Waste is the hidden part of filmmaking—out of sight and out of mind for most viewers, said Katie Carpenter, an environmental documentary producer whose films include Chasing the Thunder, Ocean Warriors, and Battle for the Elephants.

In 2008, Carpenter, Winkler, and producer Lydia Dean Pilcher cofounded PGA Green, a nonprofit offshoot of the Producers Guild of America, to galvanize fellow producers in reducing the industry’s environmental impact. The organization now includes representatives from 12 major studios. In 2010, PGA Green created the Green Production Guide, an online tool kit that helps productions calculate and reduce their carbon footprint and implement sustainable practices on set.

“We are a creative industry, and people have been coming up with really creative solutions to these challenges,” Carpenter said.

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Plastic snow from Call of the Wild became stuffing for medicine balls and cushions, while Sesame Street began renting props from antique stores and kitted out half of a Christmas set with materials salvaged from a holiday-themed commercial.

Raised by Wolves Season 2 [Photo: courtesy HBO Max]
The crew for the second season of HBO’s Raised by Wolves engineered a machine to break down polyurethane foam, a common set material that’s difficult to recycle. The foam particles were turned into building blocks by another company and sold to builders for use in energy-efficient structures.

On top of that, the show repurposed 681 tons of timber and recycled 850 tons of mixed materials and 20 tons of polyurethane, ultimately diverting 64% of production waste, according to a report by Greenset, a South Africa-based production carbon calculator.

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[Photos: Greenset]
Perhaps one of the most innovative solutions comes from U.K.-based studio Vectar Project, which creates sets and hyperrealistic props from cardboard made out of tree branches and leaves rather than trunks. The method both diminishes waste and keeps trees from being cut down.

The studio has used the cardboard to create set walls and ceilings, as well as intricately sculpted props designed to mimic carved wood. Everything in a bespoke Vectar train car, for instance, down to the rust and carpets, is made of paper.

Vectar Project’s cardboard pieces are recyclable, 90% lighter than wood and metal alternatives, and can be produced quickly. The company is in talks to make its cardboard sets available for shoots in the U.S. by 2023.

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[Photo: courtesy Vectar Project]
These approaches to set waste represent an about-face from the days of Cecil B. DeMille, who ordered the massive Egyptian cityscape created for his 1923 epic The Ten Commandments to be dismantled and buried under the dunes outside Guadalupe, California—where it still lies.

[Photo: courtesy Vectar Project]

The Economics of Waste

The challenge to expanding waste reduction efforts is the cost—it’s generally cheaper to throw set materials away than to store or recycle them. Line producers often must find room in the budget to keep sets out of landfills, even when studios have sustainability-minded policies, said former producer Chase White.

Chase White [Photo: courtesy Recycled Movie Sets]
Today, White runs Recycled Movie Sets, an open-air storage facility tucked under the I-10 freeway in downtown Los Angeles. He works with producers looking to donate their production materials rather than throw them away.

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What began as a side gig has grown into a 35,000-square-foot business, staffed by 12 people who help White rent and sell lumber, linoleum, set walls, doors, windows, and other discarded materials. Current offerings also include a scaled-down version of the Oval Office, two taco stands, and a 24-foot-wide brownstone facade. Customers for the secondhand sets are often recent film school grads making movies on tight budgets, about $2 million or less.

[Photo: courtesy Recycled Movie Sets]
White charges a minimal fee to haul set materials from studios’ storage facilities or stages. He said for producers to contact him instead of a waste management company, his services must cost less than a dumpster. “It’s always a numbers game.”

The volume of material generated by a typical TV or streaming series could fill almost his entire space, White said. He estimates that he turns away 15,000-20,000 square feet of scenery a month due to space limitations—”really cool waste, really expensive waste,” he said. “The problem is where does it all go?”

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Reuse Programs Pay Off

NBCUniversal was an early adopter of large-scale set storage, pioneering set reuse on ’90s shows like Saved by the Bell, Hang Time, and One World. The studio launched a more formalized reuse program in 2002, which has evolved into two asset centers with nearly 290,000 square feet of combined storage space. The centers service about 70 productions a year, providing set furniture, props, and costumes to studio staff at no cost.

“When one of our shows wraps, 100% of the assets come back,” said Kurt Ford, NBCUniversal’s senior vice president of production operations. “We repurpose and recycle television assets all day long. We have 10,000 square feet in Los Angeles that is nothing but wardrobe. It’s really grown into an amazing sustainability program for the company.”

[Photo: NBCUniversal]
Will & Grace sets of a hospital room, “man cave,” and New York City Hall subsequently appeared on Never Have I Ever, Kenan, and Mr. Mayor. A water tower originally constructed for The Cape later traveled to Ironside, About a Boy, Brooklyn Nine-Nine, and Rutherford Falls.

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[Photo: Tyler Golden/Peacock]
When set pieces are no longer serviceable, the studio donates them to charities, passes them on to a liquidator, or recycles them. The studio recently gave truckloads of materials from the set of Superstore to a charity partnership. “Our goal is to not put anything in the trash,” Ford said.

[Photo: Tyler Golden/Peacock/NBCU Photo Bank/Getty Images]
Fledgling soundstage Upriver Studios in New York’s Hudson Valley aims to make sustainable production the only option for its clients, said actress and director Mary Stuart Masterson, the studio’s founder and president. It plans to help productions use renewable energy, track their energy consumption, and compost, reuse, or recycle waste.

“Film and television production has a massive environmental impact,” Masterson said in an email. “To mitigate the climate effects of production, soundstages need to offer a different kind of infrastructure.”

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Winkler said she has seen an acceleration in studios’ sustainability efforts in the last three to five years. The COVID-19 pandemic and supply chain constraints also spurred many productions to consider material reuse more carefully, she said.

[Photo: NBCUniversal]
“I think that production teams were faced with having to think outside the box, possibly having to utilize an existing location over a set, based on supply chain issues,” Winkler said. “Maybe this is a good thing—to be more decisive and zero in, instead of over-purchasing.”

Recycled Movie Sets has fielded more inquiries about rentals due to the rising cost of construction materials, according to White. Ford and Casey said they’ve seen an uptick in set reuse at NBCUniversal’s asset centers due to skyrocketing lumber prices.

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But given the climate crisis, production companies can’t afford to waste time, Winkler said. In October, the Producers Guild of America issued a call to action urging the motion picture industry to reduce its carbon footprint.

“I feel the sense of urgency,” Winkler said. “I’m really proud of what we have built. As much as we’ve done, we still have a long way to go.”

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